A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Seagull Annual Catalogue 2017-2018

Regular readers of this blog will know of my profound respect for publisher, Seagull Books. One of the year’s thrills is receiving Seagull Books’s elegant annual catalogue. The beautiful 2017-2018 edition includes my brief response to Naveen Kishore’s “provocation” (in italics):

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

All things are in time, transient, and subject to change. Is it possible to conceive an entity without the potential for change? Is not the capacity for change a definitive element of a thing’s existence? For a thing to be incapable of change it surely must lie outside of time, what Samuel Beckett’s Molloy describes as the ‘indestructible chaos of timeless things”. To be in time is to be defined by terms like ‘past,’ ‘present,’ ‘future,’ ‘before,’ ‘after,’ and more nuanced terms like ‘simultaneous,’ ‘later,’ ‘always,’ and ‘forever,’ etc. Thus, for instance, if the Christian God is outside of time, to say that God existed before Moses is either false or meaningless. Does this suggest that time is illusory, unreal perhaps?

Whatever terms we use to cope with this sense of the unreal, all that is available to us is a succession of temporal moments; a progression of nows that comprise our immediate experience. To register our transience we reduce time to a series of clock or calendar measurements. Eliot’s Four Quartets draw together the poet’s reading of both eastern and western traditions to explore the ‘timeless moment’–assuming such a concept is not too problematic–when consciousness rubs up against deeper arrangements of meaning and order rooted in the substance of existence. In the final part of poem, Little Gidding, Eliot writes ‘A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ By indicating a way beyond the chaos of historical process as we normally receive it, Eliot suggests conditions that might make possible a redemptive transfiguration of self.

As we survey the ruins of self that is the aftermath of the modern consumerist obsession with finding a true identity, usually requiring some notion of fulfilment with consumption. Are we perhaps finally turning inward, away from self-absorbed individualism, a counter-reaction to an accelerated external world in which time has become ephemeral and fleeting?

Virginia Woolf, ahead of time in so many ways, wrote a haunting and intense story, The Fascination of the Pool, in which she uses a pond as metaphor for our consciousness. Its central theme is the interplay of water, light, past and future; its action invokes the submergence of our consciousness in its timeless reality. Modern science and its conception of water’s information structure as capable of possessing memories for the longest of times offers the tantalising possibility that human thought and emotion from the oldest times are both transient and timeless.

Sometimes I like to conceive of time as like water flowing in a river that always flows in the same direction. I can dream myself onto the river bank, outside of time’s flow, watching the whole span of earthly time as its memorised sequence of events flows by.

Virginia Woolf’s Flâneuse, Street Haunting

Today, Street Haunting from The Death of the Moth and other essays, an essay of Virginia Woolf’s that I hadn’t read before, written in 1927 and published two years after Mrs. Dalloway. This is Woolf’s flâneur, or perhaps flâneuse.

Woolf’s narrator also recalls Dorothy Richardson’s London, the shared freedom of Woolf’s narrator and Richardson’s Miriam Henderson to walk the streets of London and feel their connectedness to other inhabitants of the city.

A fragment, my favourite perhaps, of the essay. The whole text can be found here.

“But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.”

This Quality of Modern Fiction

In her essay Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf comes close to pinning down that elusive quality that is the difference between a novel that may be well constructed, even beautifully written, but that lacks life or spirit, that essential thing that wakes us up with a blow to the head:

“[The novel] fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind, we might say simply and have done with it. But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond.”

I should think that of the contemporary fiction I abandon, most of it is due to this suffocating quality.

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions

“. . . everything is saturated with meaning, friendships, love affairs, the view of the world, the language.”

Reading Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions is to inhabit a constant rise and fall, immersion into conflicting currents and patterns that appear and disappear in the form of interior monologues of a group of the companions that give the book its title.

These companions are intertwined around Camilla, whose literary passion is one of the many pleasing aspects of this novel, as she contemplates, amongst many others, writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard and Lawrence Durrell.

Saturation is the word that Virginia Woolf used to describe the effect she desired in The Waves, ‘a saturated unchopped completenesss’. Hesselholdt’s book stylistically nods in the direction of The Waves but has a different intensity. I found it absorbing and satisfying to follow each individual’s disillusionments and their sense of life and human separateness.

Starting Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

For her achievement with the thirteen novels that make up Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson ought to be recognised as one of the world’s great novelists. Though I confess to only having read the first four in the sequence, I enjoyed them more than any other novel I’ve read. I don’t make the statement lightly.

By the end of her first novel, Pointed Roofs, I’d started to understand what Richardson was trying to do; as I concluded the third, Honeycomb, the originality and profundity of these novels left me with that feeling of new life that comes after immersion in an icy, dark, deep winter lake. For sustained immersion is what Richardson achieves, into the consciousness of her protagonist Miriam Henderson. In May Sinclair’s review of Pilgrimage, she applied, for the first time, the term stream-of-consciousness to a novel–though Richardson disliked the term.

Other novelists use similar techniques–Joyce, Woolf, Lispector–with differing degrees of effectiveness, but I’ve never been as convinced as I am with Pilgrimage that I am plunged into another’s consciousness, channeled through the pen of Richardson. This is what literature is for, at least for this reader, an opportunity, however brief, to meet the consciousness of another, momentary respite from our solipsism and isolation.

I’m likely to be reading Pilgrimage for some time, as these are not novels to be rushed. Richardson takes all sorts of liberties with time. You must be on your guard to get most of the essence of Miriam Henderson’s encounters with the world. Making sense of the world through the eyes of another is no less taxing than trying to understand people and situations oneself. But her writing is beautiful and exciting. The way Richardson describes the play of light in a room, the minutiae of everyday life, the fragmentary nature of her brushes with others offers a fresh, bracing perspective.

If you have opportunity and an interest, track down John Cowper Powys’s Dorothy M. Richardson. It is a forty-eight page celebration of depth, a fan’s deep and loving appreciation of Pilgrimage. At one time, I might have dismissed it as hyperbole but no more. To borrow from Constance Garnett’s Karamazov, the experience of reading Pilgrimage, so far, is not a matter of intellect or logic, though these novels have enough of both, it’s more about loving life–and literature–with one’s inside.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Christa Wolf: One Day a Year: 1960-2000

It might seem, at first appearance, a little daunting, this six hundred and eighteen page book that promises to recount in exacting detail One Day a Year for forty years, those between 1960 and 2000. Daunting, unless, of course, you are acquainted with the writing of Christa Wolf, for this will hardly be your first Wolf. If you’ve been fortunate  enough to read her Cassandra, Medea, or the first-rate City of Angels, you’ll already be looking forward to immersing yourself into this autobiography of sorts, of a writer of such high cultural seriousness as Wolf.

Aside from the fascination of following Wolf’s reluctant self-revelation over such an extended time, her book also provides the sublime backdrop of history as Wolf becomes ever more disillusioned with the communism of the German Democratic Republic, whilst retaining an unshakeable faith in the economic–if not humane–ideals of Marxian socialism.

Juxtaposed with the historical context, Wolf writes of her meals with husband ‘Gerd’ Wolf, the books she is reading, her literary friends and influences–Anna Seghers, Nelly Sachs, Günter Grass, Max Frisch and especially Heinrich Böll–and the unfolding lives–birthdays, marriages, divorces–of her daughters. Beneath the macro and micro history lies Wolf’s agonising struggle to escape the boundaries of her recurring depression, realising early the important metaphysical necessity of writing.

It is impossible to read One Day a Year without bringing to mind another writer’s veiled autobiographical works, that of her near-namesake Virginia Woolf. For both writers, writing was a therapeutic act, a way of transposing trauma into literature. Both found it difficult to write about their inner selves. As Woolf wrote so poignantly in The Waves, “But how to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

To read Mathias Enard’s Compass and Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings in the same year is to be blessed. Doubly blessed. The gods of serendipity sometimes endow fortunate readers with such divine favour. Virginia Woolf contemplated reading King Lear, with the question, “Do I want such a strain on the emotions?”, answering, of course, pining reader that she was, “I think I do.” But esurient readers are equally blessed and cursed: the question always of what to read after scaling such peaks. Who can once again place such strain on our emotions?

One senses such diffidence in Michael Hamburger’s memoir, String of Beginnings, written of his early life from the perspective of his late forties. He attempts to subvert the fictional nature of autobiography by relying only on documentary evidence of the time: letters, diaries, fragments of a written life. The purism of eschewing memory and reconstruction from a work of autobiography is revealing, and marks Hamburger’s approach to both poetry and translation. He writes, “Had it not been for a crisis in my personal life that made it necessary for me to discover as much as I could about my formative years, so as to break the pattern they had set up, I was past wishing to write about myself at all.” Not, of course, that Hamburger discloses the nature of this crisis. This is a reluctant memoir.

His memoir captures the essence of an extraordinary time, of lives disrupted by the conflicts of 1939 to 1945; of the suspension of his education at Christ Church, Oxford, to serve in the British Army, and the subsequent return to his education and writing, altered irrevocably by his wartime experience. He writes, “So, in the end, I don’t know what the Army did to my writing. Even the books I glossed in barrack-rooms did something to me, though I’ve forgotten what most of them were about. Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.”

In the end, what penetrates most, despite Hamburger’s self-effacement, is the admirable and lovable nature of the man himself, which is most clear, ironically, or perhaps typically, not in his own self-reflection, but in the way that he perceives and describes the other people he encounters. In an exquisite section on his friendship with half-forgotten Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, he reproduces part of a letter Watkins wrote to him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine; “The nature of his genius is elusive, and so many readers treat the mask as absolute, whereas I think Heine really believed only in love, and rarely found it.” It isn’t surprising for Hamburger to single out such a sentence as it expresses a sentiment I am certain was equally true about himself.

Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Biography

“Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa has meant so much to me that I find it impossible to present him formally.” Written by E. M. Forster in his introduction to Two Stories and a Memory, continuing, “His great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) has greatly enlarged my life–an unusual experience for a life which is well on in its eighties. Reading and rereading it has made me realise how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” In these sentences, Forster reminds me of Woolf’s words: “It is the gift of the novel to bring us into close touch with life.”

Forster captured something essential of the The Leopard, once calling it “That great lonely book.” Somehow in considering briefly its themes of all-pervading decay and mortality, what was less obviously apparent, until stumbling over Forster’s phrase, is that the novel is suffused with ideas of aloneness, loneliness, and alienation. It is easy to see The Leopard’s appeal to Forster, whose novels are, in different ways, ruminations on our yearning for transformative connections. Connection eludes the elderly Prince of Salina. Lampedusa’s story seems to suggest that the language we use to connect to other human beings is filled with misunderstanding and might itself be the barrier that prevents communication.

Every book is the outcome of a period of aloneness, and each reader’s experience with a book a way of being in communication with another mind. Perhaps a particular appeal of literature is to those that find such connections particularly elusive. The Leopard resists simple generalisation but is a sublime expression of human loneliness.

In my enchanted state after finishing The Leopard, I chose to read David Gilmour’s magnificent biography of Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, curious how important the autobiographical drive behind this novel was. Gilmour confronts this question, eventually agreeing with Lampedusa’s English translator Archibald Colquhoun who writes, “Don Fabrizio is neither historical symbol, family memoir, self-portrait, nor wish-fulfilment, and yet something of all four.”

After writing The Leopard, Lampedusa, late in life, crossed a threshold of creativity, going on to write two further stories and even a new novel. He begun a memoir and wrote over a thousand pages of literary exegesis. His story entitled The Professor and The Siren is a magical fantasy about a professor’s life changing encounter with the Siren Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Lampedusa proposes a revision of the myth of the Sirens, “Don’t believe the stories about us. We don’t kill anyone, we only love.”

Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.

In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.

As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.

I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

Discovering Brigid Brophy

So far, this year’s reading has been remarkable. Not only some extraordinarily good first works, some singular nonfiction, and the discovery of no less than three writers to add to my list of old chestnuts, those favourites I will probably read in their entirety. Tomas Espedal, Denton Welch and Brigid Brophy.

I’ve thought of whether anything unites these often flawed but brilliant writers. What is it about their works that has bowled me over to the extent that I wish to read every word they wrote (or will write in Espedal’s case)? I recognise these are idiosyncratic passions that might not command the wide scale appreciation of Mann or Woolf, but for me their work is no less fascinating.

All three are brilliantly subtle, elegant and bookish writers but what sets them apart for me comes down to a certain tone of voice. In Brophy’s case I wrote recently of a stylish but insubordinate edge to her prose, that I got the feeling that Brophy would  look great in pearls but be the first to storm the palace when we all decide to kick the scoundrels out. That description applies equally to Welch and Espedal, replace tweed with pearls if you feel inclined.

Whatever the subject, the strong individualities of these writers emerge, and I find my way of looking at the world transfused with the colours of their thoughts and feelings.  I’ve only limited immersion in Brigid Brophy’s work, first the full, flowing freshness of The King of a Rainy Country and now the pyrotechnic flare of Hackenfeller’s Ape, but the sui generis nature of her voice is clear.